Best places to live
Top ten America's best small cities
These terrific small cities offer strong job opportunities, great schools, low crime, quality health care and a true sense of community
1. Carmel, IN
Top 100 rank: 1
Five years ago Carmel was a quiet, upscale bedroom community that offered an easy 20-minute commute to downtown Indianapolis.
Despite the recession, this formerly sleepy burb has since transformed itself into the ideal place to work and play.
Carmel's business district now has the second-largest concentration of office workers in Indiana and an unemployment rate that's just over half the national average.
The city also has excellent schools, a big sports and recreation center, a performing arts center, and wide bike lanes. All that, plus a variety of housing options ranging from older homes to new subdivisions, and you have an irresistible draw for families.
2. McKinney, TX
Top 100 rank: 2
Established in 1849, McKinney is one of northern Texas' oldest towns. Stroll around downtown, and you'll see cotton mills and feed stores transformed into hip boutiques and art galleries.
The city offers plenty of housing options, from starter homes to old Victorians and "Texas-style" five-bedrooms. Low taxes have lured companies with white-collar jobs in technology and energy, a new hospital opened in July, and a conference center and hotel complex is in the works.
McKinney's location on the fringes of the Dallas area means commuters have a longer drive downtown, but also easy access to rolling green hills, golf courses, and leafy open spaces lacking in neighboring towns.
3. Eden Prairie, MN
Top 100 rank: 3
Not much has changed in Eden Prairie lately, and that's a good thing. It still has the heady combination of terrific employment prospects, natural beauty, and a well-educated workforce. It's also kept a healthy budget surplus of 2% the past two years.
Already home to major business firms, the city is preparing for further expansion with a light commuter rail project in the works for 2018.
You have to look hard to find downsides, but there are a few: winters are long and cold, and there's not much of a downtown besides a mega shopping mall. But families come for the jobs and stay for the lifestyle.
4. Newton, MA
Top 100 rank: 4
You might think folks in Newton are obsessed with education. The city is divided into 13 villages built around elementary schools, making it easy for kids to walk to school amid the city's lush greenery.
Being close to prestigious universities adds even more benefits -- MIT partnered with the innovation lab at a local high school on a project to convert algae into fuel, for example, and Boston College will donate $300,000 for technology for Newton schools over three years.
There's also a wealth of activities, from swimming at Crystal Lake to browsing boutiques in Newton Centre to celebrations like Taste of Newton. Though housing prices are high, families say the perks are well worth it.
5. Redmond, WA
Top 100 rank: 5
Redmond may be home to one of the largest companies in the world, but life in the city is anything but a grind. With Seattle just 15 miles to the west, the Cascade Mountains a short drive to the east, and more than 90 wineries to the north, Microsoft's hometown is an ideal base camp for exploring the Northwest.
Meanwhile, there's plenty to do right in Redmond, where historic buildings, quirky shops, eateries, and brewpubs mingle in colorful condo and retail developments with public art and giant evergreens. Redmond's picturesque neighborhoods, low crime rate, and stellar schools are a major part of the city's attraction.
6. Irvine, CA
Top 100 rank: 6
Irvine has all the surf, sand, and sun Southern California is known for, with 44 miles of bike trails, 20,000 acres of parks and preserves, and a beach 10 miles away.
Thanks to smart planning, this big city can feel surprisingly small. The 40-year-old community is divided into 40 "villages," and a minimum of five acres of park space is added for every 1,000 newcomers. Home prices are high, but new development is creating more affordable options - along with new schools, bike paths, and green spaces.
7. Reston, VA
Top 100 rank: 7
Reston may be a planned community, but don't expect cookie-cutter homes here. Thanks to famed master planner Robert Simon, houses of all shapes and sizes sit next to one another.
Activities come in all stripes too, from an über-urban downtown to 55 miles of bike paths, 52 tennis courts, and 15 pools.
Thanks to Reston's growing reputation as a technology hub near Washington Dulles International Airport, major firms have large offices here. Those who do commute to D.C. contend with traffic, but next year's completion of the Washington Metro's extension to Reston will help alleviate the pain.
8. Columbia/Ellicott City, MD
Top 100 rank: 8
Living on the border of Columbia and Ellicott City offers the best of both worlds -- a charming, historic downtown with plenty of restaurants (Ellicott City) and a thoughtfully laid-out planned community with tons of big-box stores and a giant arena (Columbia).
Families in this pair of unincorporated cities get to enjoy living in a community with a diverse population, reasonable housing costs, terrific schools, miles of hiking trails, and a new development, Blandair Park, which will include 20 acres of forest, wetlands, meadows, and a historic farm complex.
9. Overland Park, KS
Top 100 rank: 9
Compare Overland Park to Top 10 Best Places
There's no lack of town spirit in Overland Park. Independent shops line downtown streets and residents rave about their friendly neighbors. Residents and visitors alike flock to the biweekly farmers' market, known as one of the best in the area, and enjoy the 300-acre arboretum, world-class soccer fields, and a re-created turn-of-the-century family farm.
The biggest knock on the city is that its fortunes depend heavily on its largest employer, Sprint. There have been no layoffs lately, however, and a half-dozen midsize firms moved to town in the past year. Nightlife is a little skimpy, but Kansas City is nearby for a late night escape.
10. Chapel Hill, NC
Top 100 rank: 10
Locals aren't exaggerating when they refer to Chapel Hill as a "town within a park." The roads wind through tunnels of arching trees, and the area has a rain forest-like charm.
But Chapel Hill isn't just a pretty face. It's part of the state's Research Triangle, which boasts one of the highest numbers of Ph.D.s per capita in the U.S. The town also houses the nation's oldest public university, and interesting educational opportunities abound.
The main drawbacks? Parts of the downtown aren't in great shape, and some areas feel overrun by students.